Monday, January 03, 2011

The Enterprise - 23

At around 12:30 – on days when there was no catering – the problem of lunch arose. We were doubly cursed with myriad options and the means to afford them all. We drifted in and out of habits, solitary and communal, seeking some unattainable peak of petty pleasure. We thought we craved a terminal state of satisfaction. What we really craved was any terminal condition at all. We should all have trundled in to work with baloney and mustard on Wonder Bread, carrot sticks, a bruised Mac and Devil Dogs in a black metal lunchbox. Then we might have been happy. Instead we wandered Chelsea or paged through the takeout pile.

There was a vegetarian restaurant on Union Square called Zen Flesh. They specialized in fussy assemblages of grain, greens and indeterminate protein, accompanied by cloyingly sweet dipping sauces and dressings. Seitan was often in evidence. The dishes arrived in cardboard boxes. You'd open them to find what looked like a handful of twigs, dirt, dead leaves and gravel drizzled with a zigzag of marmalade. It'd cost you ten bucks, twelve with tip. For some reason we ordered from them again and again and again. Until suddenly we stopped. No one said a word. We just stopped ordering food from Zen Flesh.

Many times we walked to Sunshine Falafel, a hole in the wall on 17th. The man behind the counter did nothing but make perfect falafel sandwiches, one after the other, for hours and hours, his wife beside him at the till. The line extended thirty feet down the block. He never looked up, never looked at you. He'd pause briefly after each customer, tongs prone, like a pitcher coming set. Not a glance, not a word. After you voiced your order he'd give an almost imperceptible nod and return to immaculately economical, mechanical motion: three balls in the pita, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, a ladle of tahini, a dusting of paprika. Hand her the money. Take the change. Turn around and walk away.

Jimmy was especially fond of Sunshine. There was something idiosyncratic in what he ordered. No onions, maybe. Extra pepper. I don't know. One day the falafel man looked up and squarely met his gaze.

"Usual?" he said in a thick Syrian accent.

That was the one and only time we heard him utter a word.

From time to time we tired of Sunshine, too. For long stretches we ordered dumplings from a Chinese place on 23rd. You could have vegetable. You could have pork. They were doughy, weighty things, fist-sized, slathered in a sesame mud.

I took a bite off the top of one and watched the misshapen remains slide through my chopsticks and fall back in the box with a clump.

"Don't think about how they look," Julie insisted. "Eat them! They're delicious."

We went to a neighborhood pizza joint frequented by construction guys and cops. They served a Sicilian-style pie they called grandma's, pasta dishes steeped in butter and oil. We spent small fortunes at the Whole Foods buffet on Sixth: lemon-rubbed, grilled tofu; carrot salad with cumin, lime juice and edamame; braised leeks; forbidden rice. It was irreproachably delicious. Evidently nutritious. But just as soon as we found paradise we departed in search of somewhere else. The garish barbeque place on 23rd. The designer salad delis crowded with professional women in pantsuits and heels. The cheap Indian place one block up on 25th, where all the cabbies go, where they slap your food on a styrofoam plate that bows and cracks under the curry's weight.

We patronized a gourmet grocery store on 23rd Street that sold gargantuan heros filled with prosciutto, mortadella, mozarella, pepper turkey, Genoa, pepperoni, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, balsamic vinegar, provolone, soppressata, beef tongue, lardo, bresaola, capicola, whatever the fuck you want. Sandwiches big as your thigh. Sandwiches that sink into your gut over the course of the afternoon like a listing ship.

On a few occasions that somehow seemed desperate we visited a trendy and expensive diner, where we ordered things like huevos rancheros and ostrich stew. One day as we waited for our table, Steve pointed out a figure whom he declared to be a fairly well-known, sexually desirable actress with a triple name. She bore a voluminous handbag.

"No," said David.

"I'm telling you man, I think it's her."

"It is not her."

"You sure?" Steve insisted. "I'm pretty sure it's her."

David shook his head emphatically, holding a hand up in protest. "Trust me Steve. I know what she looks like. It's not her."

Steve shrugged. Soon we were led to our table, a few feet away from the woman in question. It was her.

Sometimes we walked a mile east and back to Popeye's Fried Chicken, over on Third. The lumpy, Crisco-rich biscuits had a way of sitting in your throat. The chicken made you want to kill yourself.

When we tired of variety we sought glum predictability, a functional solution. For a lengthy spell we went to the nearest Subway shop and punished ourselves with their stingy, oversalted meats; their cold, pale lettuce; their mealy tomatoes. One day I heard Steve's voice behind me in line. He erupted in anger at the worker who was handling his sandwich at the present step in its assembly.

"No!" Steve shouted. "No!"

"Sir?" the man responded, startled.

"No! Start again!"


"Throw it out! Start again!"

The half-dressed sub lay crookedly on the preparation counter, olives and pickles strewn haphazardly along its spine.

"Don't! Don't take that off! Forget it!"


"Throw it out and start again!"

The rattled employee finally disposed of the offensive sandwich and began anew. That was the last time we went to Subway for a while. But we returned.